Advocates Demand Rights for Sex Workers at “Pose” Pop Up Shop

Advocates at STARR led a "Pose" costume giveaway alongside a rally for the full decriminalization of sex work.
Tat Bellamy - Walker

LGBTQ advocates joined together at the Christopher Street pier on May 1 for a “Pose” costume giveaway and May Day rally against plans for a new beach slated to appear near a historic hub for LGBTQ people and sex workers.

Although the city is moving forward with plans to construct Gansevoort Peninsula near Pier 53 on Manhattan’s west side, STARR, a transgender advocacy group, wants to reclaim the area in honor of the late trailblazing activists and sex workers Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

“The beach being a thing before Marsha and Sylvia [Rivera] have a memorial at this space?” We cannot let that happen,” Mariah Lopez, the executive director of STARR, told Gay City News while wearing a multi-colored dress and a corset. “Marsha and Sylvia were titans; they weren’t just trans icons. They were vanguards for the movement to end homelessness. They were vanguards for sexual liberation, [and] they were vanguards for the poor.”

STARR memorial in honor of LGBTQ activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Tat Bellamy – Walker

A temporary memorial was perched at the site of Johnson’s death and photos of the trans liberation leaders were seen wrapped with fresh flowers in honor of Johnson’s iconic flower crown.. In 1992, authorities discovered Johnson’s body floating in the Hudson River and initially ruled the case a suicide. However, in 2012, Lopez petitioned for the city to reopen the case as a possible homicide.

With support from local queer groups, including FIERCE, advocates also called for the full decriminalization of sex work — which is a major LGBTQ issue in New York City. Earlier this year the state repealed a discriminatory loitering law known as a ban on “Walking While Trans” and several state lawmakers have signed on to legislation dubbed “Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act,” a bill that would fully decriminalize sex work in New York City for all parties involved in the consensual sex trade. That bill was first proposed in 2019 but has yet to move in either chamber of the State Legislature. Many district attorneys in the city have also taken steps to move away from prosecuting sex workers, including in Manhattan.

Elisa Crespo, a volunteer at STARR and former Bronx City Council candidate, said she is satisfied with the Manhattan DA’s decision not to prosecute sex workers in most cases. However, she denounced the politicians who have pushed the Nordic Model, which only removes penalties for sex workers and not others involved in the sex trade.

“It seems to be the model that policymakers think will receive the most support from the legislature, but that’s not what sex workers are asking for,” she said. “The Nordic Model doesn’t keep us safe and continues to drive the sex working business underground. ”

She added, “It takes food off of people’s table and puts the sex worker in a disadvantaged position, giving more power and control to the person that is purchasing sex.”

Coco Saint, a volunteer organizer at STARR and a sex worker, also criticized the Nordic Model.

“The Nordic Model puts people in danger,” they said. “And makes it harder for us to get clients. All of the things that you do in order to get a client are illegal. They are just trying to confuse us and confuse people in general into thinking that it has been decriminalized.”

As activists called attention to these issues, attendees browsed Marsha’s Closet, a pop-up thrift shop giveaway, which featured outfits from New York’s underground ballroom scene and signature ’80s style designs from the first season of “Pose.” The shop coincides with the third and final season of the groundbreaking FX show, which premiered on May 2.

Attendees shop for outfits through Marsha’s Closet. Tat Bellamy – Walker

B. Hawk Snipes, a non-binary social activist who also appeared on the past two seasons of “Pose,” hopes the outfits can bring some comfort to Black queer and trans people.

“Black trans femmes are going through a lot,” she said. “Seeing them out here grabbing whatever they want is bringing a lot of joy.”

Zoey Mugler, the founder of the closet and a member of the House of Mugler, recalled that she engaged in survival sex work as a teen and sometimes she had to steal clothes because she could not afford them on her own. The closet is not only an ode to her past but lends support to future generations of LGBTQ youth.

“I always told myself when I get to a better position in my life and my transition that I would do something to give back,” she said. “With the pandemic, a lot of youth out there do not have family support. I don’t want them to go through half the things that I did to survive.”

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